"Cold beer here!"
"Get your ice-cold beer here!"
"If you're not drinking Old Style, what kind of a Chicago Cubs fan are you?"
Those were just a few of my "battle cries" when I worked as a beer vendor at Mesa's Hohokam Stadium during the Cubs and Cleveland Indians spring training game last Thursday - lugging a large plastic container filled with 16-ounce plastic bottles and 12-ounce cans of beer and ice throughout the ballpark that weighed in the vicinity of 80 pounds.
Thank God I don't have back problems.
I've held many different jobs since I began working when I was in junior high - newspaper delivery boy, stock boy and bagger at my hometown grocery stores, a four-year stint as a cargo handler for an air freight company near the Dayton (Ohio) International Airport, where I'm from and grew up as a Cincinnati Reds fan.
It was outside the anesthetic concrete confines of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium and inside of it, that I formed fond memories of vendors belting out, "Treat yourself to a Hudy!" or "Ice-cold Hudy here!" promoting Cincinnati's own Hudepohl Beer. And there was a legendary vendor simply known as "Peanut Jim," an elderly black man in a top hat with an unstitched lid that looked like a firecracker blew it loose and a ragged top coat who sold peanuts from a street corner near the ballpark. A papier mache statue of "Peanut Jim" is among the statues of super fans and notable ballpark characters exhibited at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Of all the jobs I'd held, I had never worked as a beer vendor before - hoofing up and down the bleachers and promoting my wares from the beginning of the game until the first pitch of the eighth inning when the beer selling stops.
Among the 12 vendors working that day for Florida-based Ovations Food Services which provides eats, treats and drinks at spring training facilities in Mesa, Goodyear and the new Salt River Fields, I was a mere rookie in an arena of veterans, a Minor Leaguer among Major Leaguers, and a utility player at best compared to the superstars of the game.
"You'll have a new appreciation for the job," said Jay Satenspiel, regional general manager for Ovations, who was the first point of contact in getting me suited up in a blue and red Ovations T-shirt so I would look official as a vendor for the day. "You'll get to see the trials and tribulations a beer vendor goes through during a game."
And there was no taste testing allowed. "That'll get ya fired as easy as 1-2-3," Satenspiel said. Ryan Prep, general manager for Ovations, who works out of the commissary warehouse at Hohokam told me, "We don't want to completely throw you into the fire, but that's the only way you're going to learn, right?"
From there, it was to the clutches of Fred Casey, supervisor of the beer vendors, a friendly, enthusiastic gent who smiled when he saw me coming and had a look of amazement (or maybe it was panic) on his face when I told him I actually wanted to sell the beer myself instead of shadowing one of the guys who did.
After Casey led me from the commissary warehouse to a room inside the ballpark where vendors fill out paperwork and load up with beer, lemonade and Cracker Jack, the other "players" intermittently entered the "locker room" to ice down the brew - guys like Alex "Beer Me" Lopez, Terry Yazzie, Roger Willhide, Rick Encarnacion, Robert Langmade, Kenneth Wolf, and Mark "The Beer Guy" Carlson - a 6-feet-8-inches tall, 278-pound glacier of a guy who generated the electricity comparable to Babe Ruth entering a locker room.
These were working-class guys who took pride in their work and hustled like ballplayers from a bygone era, while offering tips and advice.
Many of them had other jobs. Others were readying to sell more beer at the Phoenix Coyotes hockey game in Glendale AFTER the baseball game.
Being the rookie on the squad, I heard it all - "Yell it out there, let them know you're here," "Oh, you're going to be sore tomorrow," "Where'd ya get that fancy strap?" and even a "Hey, that was a pretty solid performance."
Their reasons for hawking beer in the stands varied as much as their personalities.
"Why do I do it?" said Terry Yazzie, a mental health counselor who's been a beer vendor for about 10 years. "It's plain and simple." Then, he held out a wad of cash. "It's also the fans and great atmosphere," he said. "Spring training is a fun time to watch baseball."
Lopez, a former living history actor who doesn't really have a battle cry for selling beer "because most of the good ones are taken," does take beer selling to another level.
"It's a performance," Lopez said. "I like the performance part. You get to entertain the fans. You have fun and an appreciation for it."
Willhide, a 15-year beer vendor veteran and a house painter from Connecticut who comes to Arizona for spring training just to sell beer, said, "I'm kind of a health nut, and this is great exercise. I get to exercise and make some money."
In addition to selling beer, Willhide, who has somewhat of a following himself, also has a purpose that benefits others.
He wears and sells blue T-shirts for $12 that say for "Roger's Loyal Beer Bums" in left field. Part of the proceeds for the shirts benefit breast cancer.
For others, it's for sentimental reasons and getting closer to the game.
"I love the interaction with the fans," said Encarnacion, a personal caregiver now in his 21st spring of vending at Cubs games.
Donning an umbrella hat and sporting a Cubs tattoo, the Chicago native said his grandmother, Phyllis Arnold, raised him a Cubs fan, but died in December at age 93, never seeing the Cubs win a World Championship.
"It's a great job," Encarnacion said of his gig. "I'm sad when it's over."
Mark the Beer Guy, a residential window cleaner who passes out his own baseball card to some of his customers, said, "This is just recreation for me."
After icing up my bucket of beer, it was out into the world of selling the suds, circling the entire ballpark. I was thankful when I sold most of my beers and the load lightened, but when I reloaded a second time, it seemed much heavier than the first.
As I made my rounds, Casey told the other guys I took the beer to places where others often wouldn't go - "He'd go up stairs," Casey said. The upper bleachers were a gold mine for people who didn't want to get up from their seat and walk down steps to a vendor camping out and waiting for the business to come to them.After two hours and eight innings of beer selling and yelling, I sold 63 beers - nearly three cases and brought in about $400. Comparably, Terry Yazzie was the high-selling beer vendor of the day, hawking 274. Overall, there was $14,000 worth of beer sold from the vending room alone on Thursday, or 2,300 beers, according to Prep.
Although word on the street is that Cubs fans are pretty good tippers, mine were minimal. Simply put, I did not have the loyal fan base as someone such as Mark the Beer Guy or Alex "Beer Me" Lopez. And man, it was hard work. If I hadn't been working out in the gym regularly for the last two months, I might not have lasted until the eighth inning. But hey, that's nearly twice as long as any pitcher will last in a game these days. What pitcher ever tosses a complete game?
Being an old-school baseball fan, the game was a good one for me just to be at as well.
Last Thursday was the day the Cubs honored Ron Santo, the former All-Star third baseman and broadcaster who died in December from complications of bladder cancer brought on by diabetes after spending 50 years in Major League baseball before a crowd of 5,500, a small crowd by Cubs or spring training standards.
Spring training officials say ticket sales are down and beer sales are down, mostly due to a bad economy when many people are out of work and cannot afford to take their families to a ballgame.
On Thursday, I was one of the lucky ones - working in the sunshine, sweating somewhat and having a better appreciation for the guys who sell the suds while seeing one of baseball's heroes remembered by Cubs co-owner Tom Ricketts, some of Santo's former teammates and his family.
It was a bittersweet curtain call for remembering Santo who first came to Mesa when he was 18 in 1958 for his first spring training with the Cubs at Rendezvous Park, a wooden relic of a ballpark with a barracks-like area under the stands where players slept and were locked out of if they didn't make their midnight curfew.
When the game was over, I wondered, "What do the beer vendors do for a curtain call?"
"After it's over, it's over," Lopez said. "We say goodbye. Then, it's on to the next gig."
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